July 26, 2019

How Three Institutions are Assessing Their Student Experience

Designing Experiences

By Elliot Felix

As colleges and universities look to assess and improve their students’ experience, what’s working for them and what isn’t? In what follows, three academic institutions summarize the benefits and limitations of current assessment tools, how they worked to build on their strengths and address gaps, and what they see as next steps for their institutions.

First, a regional masters-level university discusses complementing the in-depth, academic focus of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to uncover what students really need in terms of academic and administrative support services, and then reconfigure services, staffing, and spaces to improve the student experience. Second, a research-intensive university digs into a specific finding from their Student Experience at a Research University (SERU) survey to redesign their advising process and create a physical and digital service hub to do so. Finally, a liberal arts college uses a high-touch, qualitative process to build consensus on the current student experience and define a future vision, guiding principles, and a playbook of ideas to improve the student experience.

Without further ado – and with much thanks to our clients – here are their stories, in their own words.

Going Beyond NSSE at SUNY Fredonia
by Lisa R. Hunter, Associate Provost

In 2017 as part of its Strategic Enrollment Management plan, SUNY Fredonia sought to reimagine campus spaces to improve the student experience with intentional collaboration and partnership between service providers. At the time, over twenty student service providers were spread across eight buildings; the vision was to centralize these services across three buildings in the center of campus to improve accessibility and increase the student experience. Fredonia recognized that today’s student experience encompasses far more than the campus spaces and partnered with brightspot to create a campus-wide vision and philosophy of student success with an integrated plan of services, staffing, and spaces to support it.

Students at SUNY Fredonia

SUNY Fredonia had regularly conducted the NSSE survey to measure student engagement but wanted a more detailed and holistic understanding of how students defined their own success and how well student services supported them in achieving their goals. Through an online survey that reached 16% of the student population plus in-depth, qualitative engagement strategies that included student interviews, focus groups, and workshops, we found that students defined their success beyond academics and career outcomes to include independence, self-awareness, and the development of leadership skills. Students felt least prepared for the emotional and financial aspects of college life. They struggled to navigate the complexity of services and grew most frustrated with the lack of online accessibility, provider flexibility, and the disconnect between providers.

Utilizing this assessment information, Fredonia engaged in a participatory design process that brought together multiple service providers across Academic Affairs, Enrollment and Student Services, and Information Technology Services to holistically rethink the entire service portfolio and determine how to more effectively and efficiently deliver student services. The final plan includes integrated service points blended with welcoming student spaces across the campus buildings to foster a sense of belonging and connection among a diverse and rapidly changing student body. Such open and flexible space will reduce barriers to engagement with the service providers, faculty, and peers. During the design and construction phases of the project, service providers will begin collaborating to implement key elements of the plan to support student success at Fredonia.

Adding Depth to SERU at the University of Virginia
by Archie Holmes, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs

In 2012, UVA participated in the Student Experience at a Research University (SERU) survey and one score, in particular, caught our eye. In response to the question “Please indicate how satisfied or dissatisfied you are with the quality of advising,” we received an average score of 2.6 out of 4 (n=691) for pre-major advising, where 1 = very dissatisfied, 2 = dissatisfied, 3 = satisfied, and 4 = very satisfied. While not a poor score, we knew we could do better. After further discussion, we understood we needed a more holistic approach to advising, especially in the earlier years when students are looking to find their path and declare a major. As a result, we conceived of a “Total Advising” initiative and a physical advising center that would bring different advising providers together to enable this more holistic approach, yet we didn’t fully know what was really behind low satisfaction and how could we address it.

To answer these questions, we worked with brightspot to add depth and nuance to the feedback from the SERU survey. They engaged well over a hundred students through interviews, observations, focus groups, and town hall meetings, then looked at the transaction data on the use of our services. From this research, we identified four key opportunity areas: increasing awareness, making personal connections earlier, informing and empowering peer student experts, and making the experience more convenient. We established a vision for the center to combine physical and digital elements and to both provide help on the spot and serve as a referral point to make students aware of other resources around the grounds and how to get there. We identified core student needs and relevant support offices who could potentially deliver services in the center.

Student Advisory Group Workshop, UVA Total Advising

The Dathel and John Georges Student Center opened its doors in 2017. Nearly twenty partner offices regularly make use of the space. These uses include drop-in hours and appointments, along with new types of programs and services that have been made possible by the availability of flexible, central space. Between these new offerings and some other forthcoming programming, we’re looking forward to seeing the results of the next SERU.

Engaging the Campus in Conversation at a Liberal Arts College
by the College’s Director of Capital Planning and Project Management

Academics are at the core of our college, but we recognized that the student experience is broader, encompassing residential life, athletics, wellness and fitness, and intersections between academics, co-curricular, and extra-curricular experiences. In meeting its mission to prepare students for full, balanced lives, we recognized a need to explore more deeply the full range of student experiences. We worked with brightspot to bring together students, faculty, staff, and alumni participants through workshops, interviews, forums, and walking tours to build understanding, ideas, and consensus. We also compared different facets of the experience using review-based indices, including the Princeton Review’s Quality of Life Rating as well as the Average Student Rating, Campus Quality Rating, and Campus Food rating from Niche.com. Through these engagements and analysis, we assessed student needs. We then crafted a vision for student experience that elevated three concepts: community and belonging, exploration and curiosity, and growth and development.

Components of the Student Experience

With the needs determined and vision developed, we then used brightspot’s design thinking process to develop a “playbook” of different interventions that would change spaces, services, policies, programs, and communications in order to achieve our vision of a student experience in which students belonged, explored, and grew. We brainstormed dozens of different ideas and then got feedback from students, faculty, staff, and alumni participants to assess which ideas would have the greatest impact in both the short and long term, including making the class schedule more regular, creating a central shared event calendar and digital signage, outdoor programming like a “plant challenge,” building in a longer lunch period, and creating “social-only” spaces without academics. We have already begun to implement these ideas and received positive feedback from our students, and our ratings on sites such as niche.com have already increased: campus quality increased from C to B+, campus food increased from C+ to B, and the average student rating increased slightly from 3.5 to 3.6.

Opportunity for Better Assessment

All of these stories of assessment in action showcase the need for a more holistic assessment that is detailed-enough and organized in a way to enable acting on the results.

This patchwork approach to measuring experience in the U.S. means there is an opportunity to better assess and improve student experiences, and this will be particularly important as more institutions are making this a priority.

If you’d like to learn more, check out our upcoming EDUCAUSE online course on defining, assessing, and improving student experience. Good luck as you move ahead!

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